Cold-Weather Compromise

January 31, 2010

Dependent on latitude and microclimates, there comes a time every year when golf stops resembling golf. The places I've lived and played -- Vermont, Virginia, Scotland and now Connecticut -- it's usually about November, plus or minus a few weeks. The ball flies 20-percent shorter than it did in August, too much clothing inhibits any swing fluidity, the fairways become slow and soggy and the dead greens pill up like wool sweaters.

This is when I hibernate the clubs. Like all golfers, I wish I were better, work hard to be better, and so an ironic fear pervades this action. Was I just on the verge of figuring my swing out? Am I the guy stepping away from the table just before he's dealt the big hand? The day I lug my bag, shoes, practice balls, rain gear et al. up to the attic and carry down my skis, snowboard, boots, poles et al. to be the sports equipment fixtures in the back of my truck for the coming months -- to be there at the ready should the right weather and dearth of work obligations coincide -- is an exciting day, but also a sad one. The rite of another golf season passed in which I didn't rise to the next level.

I've always wanted to play in a USGA National Championship. This summer I suffered some painful misses: second alternate from U.S. Open Local Qualifying and second alternate from U.S. Public Links Sectional Qualifying. Then for the U.S. Amateur I didn't come close, shooting 75-75 to miss by ten strokes.

I ski at about the same level I play golf. I will never be as good as the guys who make a living from being good, realities I accepted years ago, but I still have faith I'm marginally improving at my two favorite sports. Though there is a major difference between them.

In skiing, after the months-long hiatus, I perennially rediscover the timing of last season within an hour or two my first day back. The motions of skiing are cruder, less critically precise. Conversely, during golf season, I'm petrified to go longer than three days without touching a club lest a successful swing thought or groove evaporate. As Ben Hogan famously said, "Every day you miss practicing or playing is a day longer it takes to get good," a statement I believe is truer in golf than in any other discipline (though I've never tried classical piano). I never walk away from a mountain disappointed in myself -- you don't ski a number, you just enjoy it -- but in golf my rounds that end in some degree of self-loathing are the majority. The flip side, of course, is that the successful rounds feel that much more fantastic.

This is why every winter I dread the ensuing March or April. The clubs will inevitably feel like foreign objects in my hands and it will take two solid two months to regain what has been lost. I know several good amateurs who say the mental break of winter recharges their competitive spirit for spring, which I understand, but the fact that the northeast is hugely under-represented at the best level of golf (the PGA Tour has Brad Faxon, Tim Petrovic and Trevor Murphy, and that's about it) cannot be unrelated to the notion that neglecting the clubs in winter is bad for your game.

So what is a northeasterner to do?

"Hit balls!" exclaims John Strevens, the energetic, British-born teaching pro who roams the "heated" stalls at Sportscenter of Connecticut, a complex that has also has hockey rinks, batting cages and an arcade.

Now, not only is this range off artificial mats, which I hate, the location is in the exact wrong traffic flow for me to go after work. Nevertheless, this winter, for the first time ever, I have undertaken a new approach: keeping the clubs right alongside the skis in the back of the truck. Even though it's cold, I'm trying to motivate myself to go once a week. As Strevens says, "The winter is the best opportunity to effect real change in your swing, because you're not going to the course trying to shoot scores."

Of course, you can't force the wrong sport too much in the wrong climate. If it's a powder day, my golf shoes won't be the footwear riding up front next to the heater. That'll be my ski boots.